Irréversible (2002)

Irréversible (2002)
Starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia
Director of Photography and Editor: Gaspar Noé
Music by Thomas Bangalter
Written and Directed by Gaspar Noé
Rating: 8 out of 10

Irréversible is a movie that hits you over the head like a, well, I guess I have to say it, like a fire extinguisher. I read all about this movie when it came out 13 years ago and always was too afraid to watch it, but now I finally did (thanks for the push, Lara) and I don’t regret it for a second. It is strange for a movie that has such a strong impact on me and made me think about so many things for days, to not give it a higher rating, but it is a good movie with some, let’s not call them flaws, but issues. The structure is so much more than a gimmick and puts a new perspective on a wide range of concepts, the camerawork is daring and challenging, but awesome, the use of (seemingly) long takes is essential to the effect it has on the viewer, the music is extreme and beautiful, the acting is phenomenal. The movie is haunting, shocking, confusing, thought-provoking, troubling, unbearable and addictive at the same time and above all very intense. It might be the most intense movie I’ve ever seen (pushing Requiem for a Dream off its throne). It is hard to recommend it because it is so obviously not for everyone, but if you are ready for it, it will be strangely rewarding.

(spoilers ahead, even for a movie that starts with its ending)

I often rant against excessive or gratuitous violence, so for me to endorse a movie that seems to revel in two extremely violent scenes seems hypocritical. But right here is where the structure of the movie comes in. Roger Ebert, in a brilliant review (that coincidentally also makes the movie sound better than the three stars it gets), postulated the idea that because the movie starts with vengeance (and extreme scene of hyper-violence), it forces us to think about it. Most movies I criticize for their violence just use it as a gimmick, not caring about consequences. Strangely, by learning gradually more and more about the perpetrator as the film moves backwards through its chronology, we can’t help but think more and more about his action, what it means for him and why he does it. The effect is unlike anything I’ve ever seen when a character commits violence (reminding me of Drive, although there the character stays more enigmatic).

The second violent act is connected to the sexual crime that the movie is most famous for, the agonizing, 9-minute-long, uncut rape scene that made me cover my eyes more than any horror movie I’ve ever watched. What makes the scene even harder to take is the knowledge that it will be followed by violence. But unlike torture movies where the teasing of violence is the whole shtick, here we just hope that it maybe won’t happen (though we know it will) and we also can’t come up with any real reason why it should. The movie never glorifies or sexualizes the rape scene, there is no doubt about Alex’ (Monica Bellucci) suffering, pain, fear and degradation. Though she basically is a stranger to us at that point, we know that she is loved by at least two men and we don’t get any indication that she deserves what is happening to her. And here too, the continuation of the story in the opposite direction makes it even more impossible to forget the scene because the more we get to know her, the more we are shocked by it and the less she is reduced to being the rape victim.

I want to talk about her character for a second because even in any other movie, I would have appreciated her portrayal. For the rest of the movie we see her banter and converse with her two friends, Marcus and Pierre, and we never get the sense that she is not an equal participant in these conversations or on equal footing in her relationship with Marcus. As much as the first half of the movie is a depiction of men doing terrible things out of rage and hate, the second half gives us an almost blissful state between the two genders. There is friction, sure, but we get an intellectual friendship and a loving and sensual relationship. If anything, men definitely come off as worse here than the women (or woman), but I’d still argue that it is not strictly worse. Alex is simply a fully formed female character.

Obviously, not everyone likes this movie. David Edelstein from Slate, calls it “cinematic rape” in his review and accuses it to be “the most homophobic movie ever made.” His contempt is somewhat relatable. The rapist supposedly is gay and his rape method could be considered the same way. Pierre and Marcus stumble through a gay sex club (called “The Rectum”), shouting gay slurs and being surrounded by people who seem to be enjoying the ensuing violence. After my problems with Cruising (which Edelstein mentions too), how could I accept this depiction of homosexuality? First of all, Cruising fails because it explicitly is about homosexuality and fumbles on saying anything about it. Irréversible is not about homosexuality and the rapist’s sexual orientation might in fact be totally irrelevant to his deed. His rape is no worse because of his homosexuality, nor his misogyny. But still, why have the scene in the club this way? Honestly, I don’t know. Noé claims not to be homophobic (though his excuse is not completely convincing to me) and surely Marcus’ insults can be seen as an expression of his rage. But in the end, I cannot really defend Noé’s decision and this remains the biggest issue I have with the film. It doesn’t ruin it for me, I just wish I could understand it better.

Finally, I want to talk about the movie’s ending. In a way, the movie is a collection of contrasts, separated in two parts. The first half is all men, it starts with a hell-like scene, darkness and death, the second half culminates in a single woman, in a paradise-like scene, light and colors, and with the essence of life (similar to the alluded 2001), with the tunnel almost functioning as a passage between the two parts. It moves from hopelessness to hope, which only works because of the reverse chronology and as much as the fire extinguisher and rape scenes haunt me, it is the last shot that stays in my head, the beauty, the life, the promise and hope of those last moments. And even if what happens before seems to contradict that ending or might make it look cynical, I don’t believe that to be true. There is thought behind that ending, as is with the rest of the movie, and as much as it seems that the movie wants to go for shock value, I really think it doesn’t. It has profound things to say about life, death, sex, love, friendship, gender, violence, time, rage and, yes again, hope and by this it shames any movie that only cares about gimmicks. This is a truly difficult and important movie that I could write endlessly about and its effect could well be (why not) irreversible.

Credit where credit’s due: thanks to Lara for the suggestion and some of the ideas I incorporated here!